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What I Think: Review of Iain Bank's The Wasp Factory

*one of my ongoing series of blog posts that looks at the books I read*

One of the many books on my reading list (here) has finally been read (well, actually re-read, if you're being technical). And it comes highly recommended.

Iain Bank's The Wasp Factory was written in the early 1980s, but its themes are still relevant today. I first read the book over six years ago, and I was both fascinated and shocked by what I had read. The book is clearly post-modern, and, thus, doesn't shy away from any of the difficult subjects that it approaches.

The book centers around sixteen-year-old Frank, who lives on an isolated Scottish island with his father, Angus. His mother, Agnes, has long abandoned her family, and thus, Frank has grown up without any female influence. As a result, Frank feels a deep distrust--one that borders on hatred--towards women.

Frank, who finds solace in killing mice, birds and other small island animals, believes in a sort of religion that he made up; he has created the Wasp Factory out of an old clock face. When a wasp is put into the Factory, it must choose one of twelve ways to die. Based on the wasp's choice, Frank believes the future is then foretold. Frank also goes through a nasty phase in his younger years where he decided to kill three of his family members--his male cousin, a younger girl cousin, and his younger brother (Paul). Needless to say, Frank is not your typical 16-year-old boy.

Furthur complicating Frank's life is the fact that his older brother, Eric, has escaped from a mental institution and is working his way back towards Frank and their father. Yet, the central conflict is not between Frank and his brother's impending arrival, but rather between Frank and his desire to figure out who he is. According to family lore, three-year-old Frank was accidentally castrated by his father's bulldog one hot, summer day. Thus, Frank feels that he is only half of a man, and thus, only half of a person. But has Frank gotten the entire story?

The book isn't long--just over 200 pages--and it reads quickly. Some of the things that Frank discusses and sees are difficult to handle (for example, he blows up several rabbits in one of his imaginary wars, and Eric burns a dog), but they are worth powering through for the sake of the novel. The ending is incredibly satisfying--and completely unexpected!--and makes Frank reconsider everything about himself, his life and his beliefs.

If you like this book, you might also like:
  • Peter Shaffer, Equus
  • Martin Amis, Time's Arrow
  • Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites
  • Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers

Wanderlust Revisited

We've been back from Scotland for over two weeks now: the jet lag is gone, the bags are unpacked and all of the trip laundry has been done.

There has been some minor readjustment after our trip (though, I must admit, that is ongoing--I found myself thinking about turning right into the wrong lane earlier today. Thanks a lot, UK reversed traffic lanes), but most of that is under control.

One thing has surprised me as we rejoined the working world this week. And it was something that I never thought was possible for me.

I was happy--truly happy--to be home in my little house with my puppy (who I missed an enormous amount while we were gone).

My parents took me abroad for the first time when I was 17. I got to choose where I wanted to go for my high school graduation, so we spent ten days in London, Wales and southwestern England. I was absolutely drunk with wanderlust after that trip; all the way through college, I wanted to go backpacking across Europe. I wanted to run away and go to school at Oxford, Cambridge, or St. Andrews. I wanted to take the Chunnel to Paris on the weekends, spend the summer on the Amalfi Coast, experience a real German Oktoberfest in Bavaria.

I dreamed about leaving South Carolina, my family and my tiny college town. Though I was (and still am) very close to my family, I wanted to do something completely self-indulgent for once.

And then, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I had the most perfect opportunity ever: I was invited to study abroad in London for three months. I was terrified, but ecstatic. My parents--only half-joking--told me that I absolutely, definitely must come home at the end of the program. I think they were secretly terrified that I was take off and become a Euro-hippie with a guitar and a travel backpack for the remainder of my twenties.

In a lot of ways, that summer helped me to grow up. But when I returned home in August, I realized that the trip had only increased my desire to live abroad.

I went to France that same year for my sister's high school graduation present. I came home and immediately wanted to go back to Europe. Instead, I tried to enjoy life the best I could in my college town of Clemson, SC (population: super tiny).

Many years went by. Law school came....and went. I transferred into an English literature graduate program, and specialized in (what else!?) British literature. I further focused my studies on modern London and the books written about it. I, being a penniless grad student, would read book after book about London--a place I desperately wanted to go back to, but couldn't get to--and just cry. Something ached in my soul during those years.

During the same time, I was (not coincidentally) going through a horrible break-up when my fiance and I decided to call off our wedding. I think I saw living abroad as a way to escape all of the pain and fear about the future. But living elsewhere costs money, and any grad student will tell you that money is something far and few between.

This month, six years after my study abroad experience, and almost nine years since I first went to England, I got to go on the trip that I had dreamed about, cried over, fastidiously planned for years: two weeks in Scotland and England.

It was everything I wanted and more. I got to go with the absolute love of my life, Landon. I showed him all of my old haunts in London (which he'd heard about, but not seen, since he knew me when I studied abroad in college), and we both experienced new things in Scotland.

But, for the first time ever, something was different. When I got back to our little house, that familiar tugging at my heart, that constant wanderlust I've had, wasn't there.

So, what's changed? you may wonder. Don't get me wrong--I still love to travel. I always will.

There's something challenging, scary and completely rewarding about immersing yourself in a different culture.

But now I will travel for my own enjoyment and not as a way to escape myself and the things going on in my life. I've finally learned that no matter how far or how fast you run, the issues in your life will always catch up.

Ultimately, traveling should be about experiencing the world, not running from what's bothering you.

Being nomadic still appeals to me, but right now, it's just not feasible. We both have jobs (teaching and banking) that aren't super flexible, and we've got a mortgage and a dog to worry about. Sure, those things can be worked around, but now's not the time for us to up and leave everything permanently. It's much more feasible for us to take trips when our schedules (and our bank accounts) allow.

For the first time in my life, I am happy to be exactly where I am and exactly who I am. And I only had to go halfway around the world to figure that out.

Portobello Road, Notting Hill, 2005
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, 2011

Why do you travel? Have you ever had the desire to live a nomadic life?